Twenty years after its release, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous remains as menacing and powerful as ever…
by: Michael Shields
In the circles I run in, it is not uncommon to find yourself overcome by heated arguments about everything under the fucking sun. Now, my close acquaintances and I are all children of the 90s, and thus were on the front lines of hip-hop’s ascension to the mainstream, and one topic that continually resurfaces amongst us is: What is the best hip-hop album of all time? It is never a surprise the albums that dominate this conversation, Illmatic, Reasonable Doubt, Only Built for Cuban Linx, Black Star, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, Ready to Die and such. But there is one album in particular that time and time again encounters little to no resistance when offered up for debate. An album that is so universally revered by hip-hop fans that any proclamation of its elite status is usually met with a shrug and a relenting “Yeah, I get that.” The Infamous, Mobb Deep’s second album and first bona-fide classic, is one of hip-hop’s most influential and treasured albums, and as we approach its twentieth anniversary, we are afforded the hindsight to appreciate just how significant of an album The Infamous has become.
Albert “Prodigy” Johnson, from Hempstead, and Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita, from Queensbridge, found themselves in a unique spot after the release of their debut album, Juvenile Hell, in 1993. While Juvenile Hell, recorded when the duo was still in their late teens, managed to snag a Top-20 single in “Hit it from the Back,” ((It reached a height of 18th on the Billboard Rap chart.)) the album barely sold 20,000 copies. But it wasn’t simply that people weren’t really feeling Juvenile Hell ((This is in spite of the fact that the album included production from including Large Professor, DJ Premier, and Public Enemy affiliate Kerwin Young.)), or that the duo essential blew their first shot at stardom, what was occurring around the time of this tepid debut was that a few New York artists had taken the hip-hop scene by storm. Shit was getting mad real, with Wu Tang dropping the game-changing Enter the Wu-tang (36 Chambers) in November of ‘93 and then, and more importantly, Nas forever altering the landscape of hip-hop in April of ‘94 with Illmatic. Nas set the world on fire with Illmatic and with this blaze originating in Queensbridge, where Prodigy and Havoc also hailed from, it seemed there wasn’t enough room for Mobb Deep anymore, and they correspondingly were dropped from their label, 4th & B’Way Records, as the industry’s focus shifted.
Mobb Deep persisted. They made room. Under a cloud of desperation, their bold new album The Infamous was born. Picked up by Loud Records ((Who were looking to make moves on the heels of their success of 36 Chambers.)) soon after their release from 4th & B’Way, Mobb Deep harnessed their fear of dejection, and it was this heightened sense of urgency that defined the album, and gave it its edge. Flaunting inconceivable growth from their first album to their second, The Infamous was dark, intimidating boom-bap that wasn’t for the faint of heart. Unlike the duo’s first album, The Infamous was almost entirely self-produced by Havoc and Prodigy, with a smattering of help from Schott Free, Matt Life and Q-Tip (under the guise of The Abstract). It debuted at number 15 on the Billboard 200, and number 3 on the Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart, and is appropriately credited for redefining what hard-core hip-hop could be ((The Infamous helped advance the sub-genre of hip-hop known as mafioso rap invented by Kool G Rap in the 1980s.)). Its production style utilized eerie, enigmatic samples, haunting piano loops, perverted synthesizers, judicious and rousing bass-lines, and eight-note hi-hats (“Rushing or dragging?”). Featuring legendary guest appearances from artists like Nas and Raekwon (“Eye For an Eye (Your Beef is Mines)”), Ghostface Killah (“Right Back at You”), Q-Tip (“Drink Away the Pain (Situations)”), and Big Noyd (“Give Up The Goods (Just Step)”), The Infamous felt as much of an event as a collection of songs. It was a celebration, a coming out party, and for many including myself, a daunting glimpse behind the curtain to the angst and contentiousness of the streets.
The Infamous embodies the foreboding atmosphere of a gritty crime drama. It’s The Wire in album form, no docks, no newspaper. It paints a portrait of a city in an all out war, rife with the constant paranoia that envelops you when you have to constantly watch your back (“You walkin witcha head down scared to look / You shook, cause ain’t no such things as halfway crooks”). One misstep and you could end up in cuffs, or worse. It’s “Survival of The Fittest,” where gangs are bound together by a code of steadfast loyalty, where payback is an “Eye For an Eye” and where you “might crack a smile, but ain’t a damn thing funny.” The Infamous is braggadocious, fatalistic rap at its most brazen, and in this way, The Infamous is New York through and through. As New York as Katz’s Deli, pinstripes, halal carts and dirty water dogs. As New York as Seinfeld, Langston Hughes, Annie Hall and Manhattan, Basquiat, Jeff Koons, Jay Z, John Zorn and Patti Smith. It’s the epitome of the energy that radiates off the streets. Twenty-four seven. Three sixty-five.
The Infamous is overflowing with classics, the obvious reason I am here twenty years after its release still in awe and vociferously singing its praises. There isn’t a hip-hop junkie alive who isn’t completely in-sync at the commencement of “Temperature’s Rising,” spitting “Word up, son, I heard they got you on the run / Filled with body, now it’s time to stash the guns.” Or who isn’t swallowed whole with spine-tingling chills as “Give up the Goods (Step Up)” comes to life with that snapping snare, “Hey yo Queens get the money long time no cash / I’m caught up in the hustle when the guns go blast / The fool retaliated so I had to think fast / Pull out my heat first, he pull out his heat last.” Just banger after banger, and inarguably “Survival of the Fittest,” “Eye For an Eye (Your Beef is Mines),” “Right Back at You,” “Up North Trip,” and “Q.U. Hectic” act as album standouts, but there is a track of such earth-shattering magnitude that it needs to be isolated and celebrated on its own, “Shook Ones Pt. II.”
“Shook Ones Part II” is so vibrant and raw that the minute that menacing bass-line invades upon the deceivingly subtle, yet foreboding and hard-as-hell hi-hat intro, you can feel it in your lungs and in your bones. It’s violating and all-encompassing. As bold as statement as that it may be, the “Shook Ones Part II” beat may be the hardest rap beat of all time. The song samples Quincy Jones’ “Kitty With the Bent Frame” and Dal Wilson Big Band’s “Dirty Feet,” but it was revealed by Havoc in 2011 that the piano from Herbie Hancock’s “Lucy” – a three second piece of an instrumental track that was sped up then dramatically slowed down – is the loop that the foundation of the track is built upon, exhibiting the precision craftsmanship Havoc and Prodigy were capable of at such a ripe young age. A measure of the appeal of the The Infamous in the mid-90s was that it felt dangerous, and it is “Shook Ones Pt. II” that lingers as a reminder of this precariousness. For following a solitary listen, one will never forget that “When the slugs penetrate you feel a burning sensation / Getting closer to god in a tight situation / Now, take these words home and think it through / Or the next rhyme I write might be about you.”
The Infamous was so impactful of an album because of how convincing it sounded. Whether or not Havoc or Prodigy were truly “criminal minds thirsty for recognition” was always besides the point, as the authenticity of the message was absolute. The Infamous’s Queensbridge was a lawless minefield, and Mobb Deep didn’t squander a minute explaining the root of the chaos that surrounded them, or even indicating that they were even bothered by the hostility of the place they called home. Instead, they let you know in no uncertain terms how they planned to deal with the reality of their situation, by standing their ground and daring adversaries to make their move. And it was, and remains, this confidence that makes listening to The Infamous so damn intoxicating. And now, twenty years after its release, The Infamous still offers that same high, that same infusion of fearlessness and brawn. Twenty years later, the enticing hooks, razor sharp flows, and sinister ambience that forever altered the sound of East Coast and hard core hip-hop, sounds just as fresh as ever.The Infamous is one of the major landmarks in hip- hop history and remains, appropriately, one of the most-acclaimed hip-hop albums of all time.